Some find their death by Swords & Bullets;
And some by fluids down the Gullet.
...I have a secret art to cure
Each malady, which men endure.
Thomas Rowlandson. THE ENGLISH DANCE OF DEATH. London : R. Ackermann, 1815.
Current Selling Prices
LITERATURE / CARICATURE / MACABRE
Usually in 2 volumes with engraved frontispiece, engraved title-page, and 72 aquatints by Thomas Rowlandson, all of which are hand-coloured. Book is octavo measuring 10 inches by 6. It can be accompanied by the 1817 follow up (the prequel as it were) 'The Dance of Life.' This has a further 26 coloured Rowlandson plates and was also produced by Ackermann. The great Dance of Death, but not the earliest, was by Hans Holbein the Younger. It came out first in 1538 at Basle (Basel) as 'Les simulachres & historiees faces de la mort.'
Rowlandson's work, among his best, is a jollier affair more of a satire on the follies and anomalies of his time. Gordon N. Ray claims that this work is "the only series on the subject since Holbein's to rival that master." Martin Hardie writes: "It is obvious at a glance that the artist bestowed exceptional care on the illustrations for this book. The union of the gruesome and the grotesque appealed strongly to his imagination, and in completeness of detail and carefulness of grouping the illustrations excel nearly all his other work. The hand-colouring also has been judiciously applied. Combe's versification is full of wit, and shows a force and vigour surprising in a man who had passed his allotted threescore years and ten -- a fact that adds a certain grimness to the work."
VALUE? Sometimes regarded as a 'breaker' i.e. a book plundered for its plates. However you have to have fairly gamey, not to say macabre tastes to cover your wall with dancing skeletons. Original plates can be had at many fine firms on the web at $125 and occasionally turn up cheap amongst the millions of colour plates that (don't) sell on ebay. R.V. Tooley wrote, in the days when gentlemen had such things that the book was '...one of the essential pivots of any colour plate Library.'
Now somewhat vieux jeu but the macabre never quite goes out of fashion, nor satire and caricature. The book was occasionally making £1000+ 20 years ago and would not have been one to lay down. The only change is that now it consistently makes £1000+ especially in a decent binding and with the third volume. A copy with an original sigmed watercolour and an ink drawing and 24 extra proof plates made just over $10,000 at auction in 1995.
Details of the later work: "The Dance of Life, A Poem, by the Author of 'Doctor Syntax;'" Illustrated with Coloured Engravings, by Thomas Rowlandson. London: Published by R. Ackermann, Repository of Arts, 1817. Engraved title with hand-colored aquatint vignette and twenty-five hand-colored aquatint plates (including frontispiece) With a following wind it can go for circa $1000 by itself. STOP PRESS Our French saleroom correspondent, of a macabre bent himself, reports of a remarkable copy of 'Dance of Death' sold in France recently. It was bound in 'la peau homaine' (human skin.) An 1842 edition, it made 7300 euros (about $10,000.) It is the subject of a scholarly article in Gazette de L'Hotel Drouot (13/4/07) The illustration shows a regular brown leather book - apparently it can only be distinguished as 'peau humaine' by it's texture - on very close examination one should see pores. Une horreur, direz-vous? The John Hay Brown University Library in the USA has 3 books bound in human skin, 2 of which are 'Dances of Death' one by Zaehnsdorf. The article mentions an extreme and bizarre example of bibliomania (take it through Babel if your French isn't up to it) -
Mieux encore, en 1813 un fanatique est allé jusqu'a prélever un morceau de peau sur le cadavre de Jacques Delille, l'un des poetes idolatrés de son temps. Le fragment a ensuite été greffé sur la reliure d'une édition de luxe de ses oeuvres. Relié en peau de l'auteur? Un 'raffinement' bibliophilique de plus!'